A new study should radically reset our expectations for 2021

Matthew D'Ancona
·4-min read

In the intense crucible of a pandemic, today’s lab discovery can have a transformative effective upon tomorrow’s modes of living. For this reason, the research into population immunity by Imperial College, London, released yesterday, provides important clues to what we should expect in 2021.

The team’s key finding — based on the screening of 365,000 people in England between June 20 and September 28 — is that the proportion of test subjects with coronavirus antibodies dropped by more than a quarter in the space of three months.

Though the research has not yet been peer-reviewed, it suggests strongly that the spread of the virus this year has not strengthened our collective resistance, and that the risk of reinfection remains.

Imperial’s research — which confirms the findings of a smaller study at King’s College, London, published in July —should silence those who cling to the idea that natural “herd immunity” is the only route through the present crisis.

According to this proposition, lockdowns are actively counter-productive because they delay the process whereby the virus spreads to the point where a sufficient proportion of population are immune (60 to 70 per cent in the case of Covid-19) and the virus fizzles out.

Though ministers now deny it, “herd immunity” was undoubtedly the guiding principle of the Government’s initial response to the pandemic: the vulnerable and elderly would be “cocooned”, the virus would be allowed to “let rip” through the rest of the population, and the whole process would supposedly be over relatively quickly. Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, ditched this guiding principle in March, when it became clear that hundreds of thousands of people would almost certainly die if it was pursued. Since then, their strategy has depended upon a sequence of national and local lockdowns and a (so far disastrous) test and trace system.

The research suggests the first versions of the vaccine are unlikely to provide full immunity from the virus

All the same, as the restrictions have chafed and their potential economic cost has become clear, there has been renewed interest in herd immunity — interest that was turbo-charged this month by the “Great Barrington Declaration” by an international group of scientists. The declaration was never persuasive. For a start, it is still unclear whether those who have survived the virus, are reinfected, and do not fall ill again, can nonetheless continue to transmit Covid to others. The Imperial study goes even further: it indicates that surviving the virus is no guarantee against a further bout of the illness.

The new research should also frame our approach to vaccines under development. Though the white smoke has not yet billowed from the chimneys of Oxford, the university’s collaborative project with AstraZeneca is making impressive progress and should deliver a publicly-available product in the first half of 2021. The arrival of a vaccine will pose a series of questions: how quickly can it be manufactured at scale to meet global demand? While that capacity is being developed, who will be given the vaccine first? And — no less important — how can the lies of the anti-vaxx movement be overcome to encourage everyone to seek immunisation?

But Imperial’s research echoes the warnings issued by even the most bullish supporters of the Oxford initiative. The first iterations of the vaccine are unlikely to provide full immunity from the virus, offering instead basic protection from its worst symptoms.

The initial objective of the first wave of inoculation, to speak plainly, is to make death from Covid-19 an exceptional event. And let us acknowledge that this would be a truly marvellous development in the global battle against a pandemic that has already claimed more than 1,160,000 lives.

What it would not mark is the end of that battle. The Imperial study suggests that the body’s natural development of antibodies after infection does not offer immunisation as reliably as was first hoped. This places a much greater burden upon vaccines to do the job.

It means, in the first instance, that booster jabs will be an absolute necessity, perhaps as often as twice a year. It also means that vaccine research is, in practice, only just starting, and that the quest for a full inoculation against the virus may take much longer to develop than was initially hoped.

As our first Covid winter approaches, there are certainly reasons to be cheerful. But our natural human longing for good news must be tempered by realism: no less than politicians, we should be guided by the science.